A powerful voice joined the growing chorus to raise the state's minimum wage Thursday as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said it was time for Maryland to act.
"Blue-collar people are finding it increasingly hard to make ends meet," Miller said. "I think it's time to increase the minimum wage. It's just a matter of figuring out how to do it without laying people off."
He said tying a wage increase to a cut in the corporate income tax could be a way to win votes in Annapolis.
Miller's comments come as Gov. Martin O'Malley, all three Democratic candidates for governor, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Baltimore's House delegation in Annapolis all have voiced support for elevating the pay of Maryland's lowest-earning workers.
But others expressed concern that raising the wage in Maryland would hurt the state's economy.
"The concept sounds good, and you certainly want to help people have the ability to earn a living," said House Minority Leader Nicholaus R. Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican. "But I'm afraid that by trying to help people by increasing wages, we'd actually hurt people by reducing the number of jobs."
Kipke added that many families struggle on wages above the minimum. "The right thing to do, if we really want to help people, is to give them a break on taxes," he said.
Some Democrats also questioned whether the state should press forward next year.
House Speaker Michael E. Busch said that while there's a good argument to be made that the wage hasn't kept pace with inflation, the "best-case scenario" is for Congress to make a higher wage uniform across the country.
"The appropriate way to address the minimum wage is at the federal level," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat. If Congress doesn't act before the Maryland General Assembly convenes in January, Busch said, he expects "a very full and vibrant debate in Maryland about raising the minimum wage."
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have adopted wages higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, which translates to $15,000 a year for a full-time worker. The federal poverty level is $23,550 a year for a family of four.
Busch said he would "reserve judgment" about whether to vote to raise the wage until after hearings and debate. That debate, he said, should include data and a study of which sectors of the economy would be most affected were a higher wage required.
Legislation to increase Maryland's wage from $7.25 to $10 an hour — and create automatic hikes tied to inflation — went nowhere in Annapolis last year, dying on an 8-3 vote in a Senate committee. But there's little doubt among the state's Democratic leaders that the issue will emerge in the legislature next year.
"Let's be candid here: It's an election year," said Sen. Thomas "Mac" Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and chair of the Finance Committee, which killed a higher minimum wage bill this year. The proposal is backed by labor unions and advocates for the poor, which Middleton described as "a very, very powerful lobbying group."
Middleton said when he and others voted down the proposal in March, there was concern that more businesses were shutting their doors than opening them. "Our fear was that raising it to $10 would be the straw that broke the camel's back for businesses," he said.
The still-recovering economy – and uncertainty about health care expenses linked to the roll-out of Obama care — contribute to his ongoing concern about raising the minimum wage, Middleton said.
"By the same token, this gap between rich and poor is getting bigger and bigger. You just can't leave behind people at the bottom of the ladder," he said.
Aides to O'Malley said he has not decided whether to sponsor legislation to raise the wage in the coming session. Miller said he sees "a movement toward making it happen" in the legislature, but added, "I think they'll be some compromises along the way."
Among them would cutting the corporate income tax rate, an idea championed by the business community. Miller also mentioned a two-tiered minimum wage that paid young people and trainees less than other workers.
Baltimore's House delegation leaders said Thursday that raising the state's minimum wage by nearly $3 an hour will be the city's top issue in the next session.
Maryland Policy & Politics
"This is going to be our new strongest priority," Del. Curt Anderson, the delegation chairman, said at a news conference at City Hall held with leaders of labor unions and the mayor.
"It's the smart thing to do, and it's the right thing to do," Rawlings-Blake said. "When our low-income families get a hand up, all of us do a little better, as they have a little more money and time to build stronger, more self-sufficient families and communities."
The bill backed by city politicians would incrementally increase the state's minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016 and automatically increase it with inflation thereafter. Supporters argue the increase would inject $466 million into Maryland's economy, and create 4,060 jobs in the state.
The Baltimore City Council is backing a resolution, sponsored by City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, that calls on the state to raise the minimum wage.
The effort is supported by Raise Maryland, a coalition of labor unions, faith organizations and other groups.